Adam Grant Wants You to Rethink What (You Think) You Know

Posted by Cybil on February 4, 2021

Speaking with Adam Grant feels like having your brain sandblasted, in a pleasant sort of way.

As an author, professor, and psychologist, Grant is a born communicator—engaging and impossibly articulate. He can do that magic trick of making extremely complex ideas seem simple and straightforward. Not coincidentally, he’s the youngest-ever tenured professor at the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a popular TED Talk presenter.
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Grant’s books have focused on workplace dynamics (Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success) and innovative thinkers (Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World). His new book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know, digs into the synaptic weirdness of why we think how we do and how we know what (we think) we know.

The bottom line: In a world that’s constantly changing, we could all benefit from deliberately reassessing our cherished opinions.

Calling in via Zoom—like everyone else on the planet—Grant spoke to Goodreads contributor Glenn McDonald about difficult conversations, extinct corporations, and the benefits of changing your mind.

Goodreads: You’re most often referred to as an “organizational psychologist.” What does that mean exactly?

Adam Grant: So, basically, I study how to make work not suck. My job is to apply psychology to the way that we design jobs—to make them more motivating and meaningful, to study how organizations can become more collaborative and generous. So it's psychology applied to the workplace and to all kinds of organizations—not just businesses, but also governments, nonprofits, and communities.

GR: It seems like perfect timing for this particular topic. Can you tell me a little bit about the genesis of the book?

AG: Sure. Originally, I got interested due to my own experiences. My job as an organizational psychologist is to think again, right? I try to gather the best possible evidence to test assumptions that people hold about how to work, how to live their lives.

In January of 2018, I went to a group of the most powerful CEOs in Silicon Valley. And I said, "Hey, I want to run a remote Friday experiment, where you let people work from anywhere one day a week." And none of them agreed!

Consistently, the CEOs said, "We don't want to open Pandora's box. Who knows, people might never come back to the office." And hilariously, at least three of these CEOs have announced that they might never go back to an office now, and they might run a permanently remote workforce.

GR: Good timing again—now we’re all working from home.

AG: Exactly. And that's what I think is such a tragedy. We only did all this rethinking when we were forced to do it. Imagine how much more we could have learned, how better prepared we would have been for a pandemic, if they'd been willing to think again.

That kind of inflexibility is, you know, it's just maddening to me. I've watched a lot of companies go bankrupt or fall apart because they failed to think again: BlackBerry, Blockbuster, Kodak, Sears. All have essentially ceased to exist, because they weren't willing to let go of their strategies and reconsider.

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GR: One of your phrasings in the book really resonated for me. It was the idea that being smart and educated is all well and good. But in today's world, this other set of skills might matter more—the ability to rethink and unlearn. Are these cognitive skills particularly valuable now, in the 21st century, largely because things just move so fast?

AG: Yeah, it’s increasingly common for people to fall into a trap of what's called “cognitive entrenchment.” A lot of us have this idea that we want to become experts in a domain, or we want to have a lot of knowledge. Anyone who grew up watching Jeopardy, right, how cool would it be to know all those answers?

Obviously, there are a lot of advantages to accumulating information, but the problem is that you start to take for granted assumptions that need to be questioned. Psychologists call this “cognitive entrenchment.” You sometimes get trapped in a bubble of your own expertise. Some of the studies on this are really fun. There's evidence, for example, that expert bridge players, if you change up the rules a little bit, they actually play worse than novices. They have such a hard time questioning the strategies that have worked for them and adapting to a new world.

Anyway, to your point, we live in a world where we're not only changing more than we ever did before; the pace of change itself is accelerating, right? And that means that knowledge is more likely to become obsolete. It means that the things that we believed were true yesterday are less and less likely to be true about the world around us today. I think we have to get better at rethinking and unlearning.

GR: You’ve got this great summation line for what you do: You help to make work not suck. If someone corners you at a party, what's one thing you can tell them to do—like, tomorrow—to make work not suck?

AG: Ha! Well, first let me give you a little backstory on how that phrase came about. For years, I would end up sitting next to someone on an airplane and they would ask me what I do. It was always hard to give an answer to that. I would say, "I'm a psychologist," and people would immediately move away—they’re thinking of Freud and someone lying on a couch. OK, well, "I do research." Research sounds really boring. OK, "I'm a professor." They think I’m going to lecture them for nine hours.

So I eventually landed at saying, "I'm an organizational psychologist, and I study how to make work not suck." And that worked! Inevitably, people would say, "Well, I would love for my work to not suck. Tell me how to make my job better. How can I deal with my toxic boss or this horrible culture I'm stuck in?"

As to the question at the party, I don't know that there are silver bullets or one-size-fits-all solutions. Well, there’s one thing that I’ve enjoyed learning about with my colleagues, Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton. It’s called “job crafting.” It’s the idea of letting the employee have more say in the job description itself. We found in our research that just assuring people that their job is flexible—that it's not completely fixed—is enough to boost their happiness and sometimes their performance.

GR: The title of your book is just perfect. Did you have that little idea in mind early on?

AG: No, I had to think again. [Laughs.] It’s not a joke, I'm completely serious. When I sat down to write this book, it was going to be about open-mindedness. My working title was Opening Minds. Then I went to Unlearning. I had a whole list. Nothing quite captured what I wanted to really invite people to do.

Eventually, I was reading back through some of my earlier writing. And I was struck by how often, no matter what topic, I would end up writing something like, “If you think X is true, you might want to think again.” All of a sudden, it clicked.

GR: It really is a timely topic, considering the issues we're having lately in our national community. It seems that conversations can be so fraught right now, people are so entrenched in their views. There’s no real exchange of ideas.

AG: Yes, it’s a question that I've been getting a lot: the problem of dealing with unreasonable people. This goes right to something I've just found immensely useful in my own career and my own personal relationships. Over the past few years, when I talk to someone who is really digging their heels in, I just remind myself: You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them think.

But instead of getting frustrated and going on the attack, what you can do instead is get curious and say, “Well, I wonder what evidence would change your mind?” And at minimum, what that does is it allows us to have a conversation about the conversation.

And sometimes they'll say nothing: "Nothing could change my mind." So I've actually said to people, “OK, it sounds like you're not interested in thinking scientifically or critically—this is a religion for you. OK, at least we know that.” It’s pretty rare that you can change someone else's mind. What's more common is that you can help them find their own motivation to change their mind—and you're more likely to do that.

GR: There’s this concept that's been in the culture for a while now: the idea of the echo chamber effect, that the media sources we choose tend to give us the information we want to hear. Do you have any ideas around this?

AG: Yeah, obviously we have a lot of work to do, both as producers of information and also as consumers of information.

It’s hard for any of us, as individuals, to dramatically change the media and social media ecosystem. But we do have control over the information that we produce or forward. On that end of things, there's evidence that if you teach yourself to think more like a fact-checker, you're less likely to only share information that confirms your worldview. So when you read something that you instantly agree with, what you're supposed to do is to ask yourself, “How credible is the source? How rigorous is their process for checking their information?”

And then on the consuming side, we often find ourselves only listening to ideas that make us feel good, as opposed to views that make us think hard. But we can make different choices there. I’ve started to do this differently myself. Now, when I make choices about who to follow and what to like, I've stopped paying attention to whether I agree with the conclusions. I'm more interested now in the person's thought process.

I think the point of learning is not to affirm our beliefs; it's to evolve our beliefs. That means that I want to follow people with opinions that aren’t consistent with mine, but I respect the intellectual integrity of their thought process.

GR: OK, last question. This is something we’ve been asking various authors: When you read for pleasure, do you tend to read just one book at a time or do you have several going at once?

AG: Hmm. Interesting, I don't know. I don't have a rule on that. I think a lot of it depends on the kind of reading I'm doing and what my goal is. I would say when I'm reading fiction, I'm kind of a serial reader, because I get completely immersed in the story. I usually can't put a book down once I start. I read a lot of sci-fi and thrillers, suspense. So if I pick up Suzanne Collins or Ernest Cline or Harlan Coben, I will usually not put the book down until I’m finished.

But when it comes to reading nonfiction, if I’m interested in a topic or a question, I'll pick up multiple books that tackle it from different angles. And I'll read a chapter from one and then a chapter or two from another. With nonfiction, I'm much more of a parallel processor.

Adam Grant's Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know will be available in the U.S. on February 2. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

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message 1: by Charlie (new)

Charlie Barr I am going to be reading this book too!

Aaron - Where do you find the #NBIC?

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